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Stress and Anxiety in Young Teenagers: what is it and what can we do about it?

First of all: do you remember anxious moments when you were a teenager? What were the things that stressed you? When asked, most adults will remember certain stressful moments, which left a big impact: being rejected by peers, feeling like one does not fit in, school-related stress, bullying, and having a go at romantic relationships just to name a few. Though most people can relate to current teenagers, a big difference with the current generation is the rise of technology and it's positive yet also stressful impact (see how to help kids with too much screen time here). The other day I held a presentation at an international school for parents and teachers on anxiety in young teenagers (middle schoolers). Because of the positive feedback I received, I decided to dedicate this blog post to:

  • What Stress and Anxiety is.

  • Why socially smart animals have more stress.

  • What can we do about it? Basic tips for parents and teenagers.

What is Stress and Anxiety? Stress can be defined as a psychophysiological reaction to a stressor which leads to bodily or mental tension. As most researchers will agree, stress is both necessary and useful for our survival. Yet many psychological disorders are caused by excessive stress-responses.

Anxiety can be seen as an excessive stress response. Yet anxiety is different from fear in that it is a feeling towards a future outcome we wish to avoid or don't feel ready to deal with. Ultimately this can stop us from functioning well. This often means that the activation of one’s fight, flight or freeze mechanisms may occur even when they are not necessary.

Video on our fight, flight or freeze response

There are many forms of anxiety-related problems: Social anxiety, performance-related anxiety, feeling overly stressed, wanting to fit in, self-esteem issues, peer-pressure, phobias, etc. Depending on the multitude and severity of the symptoms someone can be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Do you recognize certain anxieties in yourself or in your child?

Why socially smart animals have more stress Neuroendocrinologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky wrote in his book Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers: “We live well enough to have the luxury to get ourselves sick with purely social, psychological stress.” Sapolsky noticed that Zebra's may briefly have very high stress whilst being attacked by a lion, but for the rest of the day appear more relaxed spending their time grazing or finding food. On the other hand, baboons have overall more stress levels (measured through their cortisol levels), even though there are no major threats of other predators (baboons are smart and have big fangs able to protect themselves from carnivores). Moreover, they only spend a few hours a day finding food and have the rest of their day off to socialize. Baboons, just like as humans, live in complex social systems where they worry about what other baboons may think of them, who is the more dominant member, and whether we get with the partner of our liking. As Sapolsky puts it: "What that means is you've got nine hours of free time every day to devote to generating psychological stress toward other animals in your troop. So the baboon is a wonderful model for living well enough and long enough to pay the price for all the social-stressor nonsense that they create for each other. They're just like us: They're not getting done in by predators and famines, they're getting done in by each other." Thus social systems play a major role next to genetics, and one’s environment. Well, how does this relate to teenagers? Especially in adolescence, teens are trying to find their tribe, they want to make friends, are trying to fit in yet also explore their individuality. Just like baboons, humans are trying to fit into a social model, and that can create a lot of unnecessary stress.

Being an Expat Child (or Third Culture Kid) can add extra stress. Next to all factors that are part of a regular transition during secondary school, expat children and their families also have to relocate and adapt to new socio-cultural environments. Having to adapt and make new friends can be an opportunity but also an added stressor. It may not seem suprising that expats in general report higher levels of stress than local members of the population.

There are many forms of anxiety-related problems: social anxiety, performance-related, feeling overly stressed, wanting to fit in, self-esteem issues, peer-pressure, phobias, etc. Do you recognize certain any of these anxieties in your child? Have a look at what you can do below.

What can Parents do?

  1. Connect and communicate with your child. Trying to understand where your child is coming from, and putting yourself into their shoes may really help them. Make time to listen to them.

  2. Be reliable in your actions and let your child know that you are there for them. Through all the turbulence a teen goes through, it is good for them to know that they can count on a stable parental figure. Giving your child a structured setting and the opportunity to relax and vent is essential.

  3. Promote their social self-growth. Help them in building a healthy social network both in and outside of school.

  4. Make use of healthy family rituals. Especially for expat families, whose idea of home might evolve over time, it is important to keep certain routines or traditions intact (e.g. joint dinners, a game night or other family traditions). This can help maintain some stability which helps some kids feel more secure.

  5. Manage your expectations and those of your children. Be realistic of what you ask (i.e. is your child slacking or do you expect them to perform beyond what they are capable of?). The expectations of your child might also be unfitting. Often when we are anxious our thoughts are less realistic. Giving your child a healthy reality-check might help them relativize their situation.

  6. Enable off-time to explore new interests and hobbies. There is enough evidence how having free-time and physical activity is beneficial to our health. Plus for young teens exploring their interests helps them form a more coherent identity as a whole.

  7. Allow your child to deal with challenges. You cannot protect them of everything, and in the end they have to slowly learn on how to tackle problems and build resilience.

  8. Ask for advice or support. Stay in touch with the school by talking to teachers, counselors, mentors or going to parent evenings. If you are struggling, often there are other people in one's community who go through the same issues or can point you into the right direction. Most schools are also willing to assist when approached openly.

  9. Make use of the Web. There are so many online resources with tips and advice at your free disposal (see some links at the bottom of the page).


What can Teenagers themselves do?

  1. Breathe. You can take a few deeper breaths wherever you are and it's free!

  2. Try to get enough sleep and rest. Most teenagers don't sleep the suggested 8 to 10 hours which may help you feel more relaxed, focus and function better in general.

  3. Speak to someone you trust. It could be a mentor, school counselor, best friend or family member. Remember that you are not alone and chances are that people will help you if you address your concerns openly.

  4. Express your thoughts and feelings. Emotional outlets like art, music or sport can have a healing quality in itself. Sometimes when we express ourselves it can also help us to relativize and appreciate ourselves and surroundings in a different light.

  5. Check whether your fears are realistic or unrealistic. Often what we are most anxious about does not tend to happen after all. Figure out whether the anxieties that you have are grounded in reality. If I am in a threatening situation it is understandable and useful to feel fearful.Yet if there are no clear negative outcomes, or I make possible bad outcomes than what tends to happen, maybe my fears are not realistic after all.

  6. Use calming apps to counter your anxiety. There are many apps out there to help. Just to name a few that I've seen give good results: Stressed Teens - Take a Chill, StopBreathThink, Headspace, Smiling Mind, or Buddhify.

  7. Reach out. The same factors that cause the most amount of stress and anxiety (your social network, family or school), are often the one’s where one can obtain further support. For instance if you are being bullied at school, it might be wise to reach out to a teacher or school counselor. Or if you notice that you get stressed at home when having to prepare for an exam, you could see how speaking to a friend, who also has the test, deals with it.

There is more to say on this. But hopefully these tips have been useful to you.

Just as when I give presentations at schools on these topics I tend to run out of time, I feel like there is much more to say about this (such as what teachers can do, or specific interventions that help). But that has to wait for a different blog.

Sources: Robert M. Sapolsky. (2004). Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. Holt Paperback. Additional Reading: Transitions Expat Teens Talk by Dr. Lisa Pittman and Diana Smit The Expert Expat by Melissa Brayer Hess and Patricia Linderman The Global Nomads Guide to University Transition by Tina L. Quick Third Culture Kids by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken Mindfulness A Pebble for Your Pocket by Thich Nhat Hanh Mindful Movements by Thich Nhat Hanh The Mindful Child by Susan Greenland Online Tips & Resources:

About Patric Esters

Patric Esters image

Patric Esters, MSc is an expat psychologist who provides psychological counseling and diagnostics to expat teenagers and young adults living in The Hague. Patric speaks and treats clients in English, German, and Spanish, but also in Portuguese, Catalan and Dutch. ​Patric Esters has been working for several years as a child and adult psychologist in a renowned international clinic for expatriates. He has a vast background in psychology and psychotherapy and first-hand expat experience, being born in Germany and raised in Spain at an international school.


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